Approaching Tough Subjects

Museums are no strangers to difficult topics; many house exhibits that address social topics in order to spark conversation and consideration for these difficult issues.  The question is: how do we approach these subjects in museums?  

Some of the overarching problems in discussing social issues include paranoia, misinformation, and irrational behavior.  In order to combat these themes, museums have to look at the role that scientists and the media play in discussing these topics.  In her article “A Broken Trust: Lessons from the Vaccine-Autism Wars”, author Liza Gross explains that parents are starting to see the scientist as just one more voice in a sea of opinions. Because of this, misinformation starts to creep in from the media and from misinformed or under informed parents.  Some of our goals as museum professionals should be to place the modern issue in a historic context to allow for interpretation.

The role of collections in understanding societal issues may also play a part in discussing tough subjects.  Eric Feingold, a history curator at the Ohio Historical Society, explains, “Objects provide a tangible link to history…topics such as racism, homophobia, etc. may be somewhat abstract…people may not think they exist or are an actual societal problem”.  Feingold also says that because museums are held in the public trust, it is their duty to present history by being faithful to actual events and people.  Exhibits on issues such as immunization are tricky, but they are also important to presenting the context of historical decisions and the key to creating an informed community.

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11 Responses to Approaching Tough Subjects

  1. jehartman93 says:

    I think history museums should make it more of a priority to host exhibitions and programs on public health and the history of science. HEALTH lies at the intersection of gender, race, socioeconomics, nationality, and technology. It provides a prism-like platform upon which museums can inspire audiences to reflect on their own multiplicative identities and life experiences.

    • welceq51 says:

      I completely agree. Health is a universally human experience despite cultural lenses skewing the ways in which it is approached. It is a factor of life everyone has had to face at some point or another. Its a subject that is understandable by everyone and through the lens of health, history museums can broach broader topics of social discourse that might actually be more difficult for a non-history buff to grasp.

  2. emerbr84 says:

    Health issues are experienced by all and therefore deserve a place in museums.

  3. peteglog says:

    If an issue does not directly effect our daily lives, it is harder to come to terms with it. Showing relationships between issues and how they effect people can bring awareness for many issues that museums tackle.

    • scalje70 says:

      I think you make a good point Peter. As we’ve discussed in class before, it’s difficult to fully understand a topic, or understand it’s impact until it has affected us directly.

  4. lucega96 says:

    I really like Feingold’s comment about being able to connect collections to a variety of issues in a tactful and ethical manner. During discussion on these readings, Gretchen mentioned the giant iron lung she found in the collection at the New York State Museum (I think that’s where it was?) Relating this to Feingold, I think curators have to use objects that will catch visitor attention and help create perspective on an issue. An iron lung, not an uncommon medical instrument at the time, seems other-worldly to us. It really brings home the serious and disruptive nature of the TB epidemic. Using collections wisely to address issues can be a powerful platform for museums produce dialogue and understanding.

  5. peytonktracy says:

    And possibly even more challenging, interpreting these objects in an exhibit in such a way that validates the science or debated subject matter. It’s one thing to see the other worldly iron lung or the TB porches or what have you, but the interpretation with those objects is what drives the message home. For this comment I was trying to think of an example of an object that could or would drive home the vaccine message well, and I honestly couldn’t think of a good one. Any ideas?

  6. fundmc55 says:

    Peyton, you pose an interesting question and I haven’t been able to decide on an avenue to address the anti- vaccine movement but I’m sure there are several! Although these topics can be tricky to navigate but I think they are of the utmost importance to maintain relevance within communities.

  7. corwhe56 says:

    Greer I like how you brought in the iron lung as a way to talk about something that was very common years ago, but is part of history now. If museums wanted to talk about controversial subjects such as vaccinations using events in history related to health and epidemics would be a way to do that without causing community outrage. The polio epidemic is one, but measles, and whooping cough also used to be rampant that have been stifled with the use of vaccines. Detailing the history surrounding these diseases would be a way to talk about how vaccines have helped society without outright making the case for vaccines.

  8. scalje70 says:

    I believe when addressing controversial or difficult topics in museums, we just have to do our best to focus on the facts. Present each side and make it understandable as to why each side exists, then allow the visitor to explore and make their own decision.

  9. hoffsm90 says:

    Addressing controversial topics can be difficult, but I do think that museums are practically obligated to weigh in sometimes because we have to address what is relevant t the community. Pulling similar experiences from the past or collections like the Iron lung can help so much in addressing these issues.

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